Port Alberni teacher returns to Egypt after escaping the revolution

Port Alberni teacher Sara Mayo got more than she bargained for when she took a teaching assignment in Egypt last year.

Port Alberni teacher Sara Mayo was evacuated out of Cairo

Port Alberni teacher Sara Mayo was evacuated out of Cairo

It started out as a teaching gig that was no different than one at Alberni District Secondary School.

Port Alberni resident Sara Mayo, 28, took a teaching assignment in 2010 at the American International School Of Egypt in Cairo after hearing about it from a friend who taught there.


For a year Mayo lived the life of a teacher: travel to work, teach class, mark assignments then hang out with friends in Cairo on weekends absorbing Egyptian culture.

But in January a revolutionary spark started in neighbouring Tunisia and ignited a burning civil furor in several countries on the continent.

The unrest spread to Egypt and thousands of people protested poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the autocratic governance of President Hosni Mubarak.

Within a week Mayo could hear gunshots and Molotov cocktail explosions in her neighbourhood, and within days she would be evacuated as the protests exploded all around her.

“I felt relieved that my family and friends who knew I was there could relax a little bit now that I was out,” Mayo said by phone from the Netherlands.

“But it’s sad to see a place and people you love tear itself apart because of hatred.”

Mayo was born and raised in Port Alberni and is the daughter of Jim and Rita Mayo.

Sarah Mayo graduated from ADSS in 2000 and earned her teaching credentials at Simon Fraser University and the University of BC Okanagan.

She taught in Chilliwack then in China before learning of the opportunity in Egypt.

“It was a chance to live and work in a far away place,” Mayo said.

“And it was close to Europe so there would be lots of travel.”

Mayo settled in Maadi, a suburb less than an hour outside of Cairo.

It took some time to adapt to her new culture.

“I remember wandering around all day looking for something to eat during Ramadan – a period of holy fasting for the city’s largely Islamic population.

The only incident of note was in September when her school closed for a month because of concerns about how H1N1 flu could impact the city’s densely packed population.

But things changed in January when protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square began to swell, something that Mayo wasn’t initially concerned about.

“A friend told me that Egypt is pretty laid back, that people didn’t like to fight, and that he didn’t think that anything was going to happen,” she said.

Protests in Tahrir Square.

By the end of the week troops from the Egyptian army entered the square and a nighttime curfew was set by police.

Mayo never entered Tahrir Square where the largest protests took place, but could see and hear the events from her second-floor balcony in Maadi, she said.

Mayo and others ventured outside their residence to get a sense of what was happening and received warnings from passersby.

“People in every car that drive by told us to ‘it’s not safe — get back inside’,” she said.

“I think I knew then that this was bigger than we thought.”

The protests took place outside of Maadi, but danger swept their way when more than 1,000 inmates in a nearby prison facility escaped.

“The prisoners were all over, they overtook a police station and stole weapons inside then wandered around the streets breaking into places,” Mayo said.

“We had a security guard in the lower part of our building so we were safe,” she said.

“But I heard gunshots and petrol bomb explosions all night and hardly slept.”

That Saturday was a religious holiday and Mayo expected there to be fewer people protesting in the square.

Instead, the day drew more protestors than before, and this time it also drew supporters of president Mubarak.

The two sides clashed; hundreds of protestors were injured and several were killed in what is now considered to be the protest’s most violent night.

Rumours of women being raped had Mayo on edge as well.

“I didn’t want to be caught in something that I couldn’t avoid,” she said.

“What was happening on side streets was more violent than the protests in the main square,” she said.

On Sunday officials from several schools decided to voluntarily evacuate their employees out of the country.

Mayo and more than 40 other B.C. teachers were herded aboard five charter buses and brought to the Sharm El Sheikh resort.

“Egyptian people said to us ‘Please come back, this isn’t against you, you’re just caught in it,” Mayo said.

She and the others boarded a plane for London, England shortly after.

“My friends and I just looked at each other and breathed a big sigh of relief when we landed in England,” Mayo said.

She’s spent time with a friend in the Netherlands but has since returned to her school in Egypt.

“I’ve had a great experience there despite what happened,” she said. “It’s where I consider my home to be.”

She’s been in touch with friends who are protesting in Cairo and is concerned about them.

“I’m worried for people I know who are still there whose lives are in danger,” Mayo said.

“But they’re fighting for a government that is representative of the people and I respect that.”

Mayo’s mother Rita has ridden an emotional roller-coaster in the past month and is glad the ride is over.

“I was very nervous when it first started but now I feel very, very relieved,” Rita Mayo said.

“It would be as if Vancouver, Toronto or New York were in ruins after that kind of protest.”

Rita and husband Jim Mayo worked to have their daughter put on an evacuation list but got her out on a commercial airline instead — and not a moment too soon.

“Let’s just say that I’ve got a few more grey hairs now than I did before this started.”


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